In Myanmar, Remove Barriers to Participation

By Moon Nay Li

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Moon Nay Li is a member of the Kachin ethnic group and a women’s rights activist. She is a member of the Global Advocacy Team, an 8-person group convened by the International Accountability Project, to conduct local research on development and make recommendations to improve World Bank policy on development finance. The Global Advocacy Team’s final report from 8 countries will be released in 2015.

I grew up under military dictatorship during the longest civil war in the world. When I was a little girl, I saw many villages forcibly displaced by the orders of the military regime. My own grandmother’s village was forcibly displaced three times. The displaced families struggled for their survival. They lost all their belongings including their land. When I became an adult, I started to understand that the government and companies were forcibly evicting people for so-called development projects. I felt really upset seeing this happening in my country. I have lived through — and stood up to — various kinds of discrimination, such as ethnic discrimination, gender discrimination, and religious persecution by the state. My spirit grows stronger each day to struggle and fight for my people’s rights.

Burma/Myanmar is now opening its economy to the world after many years of isolation. This has attracted the attention of international donors and investors who are eager to exploit the country’s fertile lands and natural resources. This does not mean, however, that human rights violations have ended. Investors do not often hear about the ongoing challenges in Burma/Myanmar because they speak only to government officials rather than the people. In fact, many of the country’s top government officials have only changed their uniforms. They still come from the military and their policies are still the same.

Consider one recent example of development, the reconstruction of the National Highway 3 (NR 3/AH 14) in northern Shan State.

National Highway 3 in Northern Shan State. Image Credit: KWAT Research Team

The highway runs for 460 km and was developed by one of the country’s most controversial companies. The company is involved in many development projects but it has also been implicated in drug trafficking, money laundering, and use of military force against the people. Construction for the highway began in 1997 and it is now considered part of the ASEAN transportation network linking the economies of Southeast Asia. The project displaced a number of communities against their will, including many Kachin people. Our research team spoke to many of those who were directly affected, documenting stories of exclusion and intimidation as a result of the project plans.

The forced evictions of villagers began in 2000. No consultations took place, and the developers did not even bother to explain the project to the communities. One woman, whom we shall call Ah Hkawn, described her experience:

“We did not know anything about the project. My family was shocked when we learned that our land was in the road construction area and that we had to move. We could not do anything. We had no place to report our case. We tried going to the office, crying in front of the office, but nobody listened to us. The authorities said we had a few weeks to move, but the company workers came with bulldozers and threatened us. They said that if we did not move, they would destroy our house and all of our things.

So we first moved to the place that the authorities told us to go. We carried all of our belongings. Our house is made of bamboo, so it was easy to move. But it was only a week later we were told to move to another place. The second time we moved, it was raining, and all of our belongings, including our blankets, were wet. At night we had to sleep without blankets and with nothing surrounding us, because we could not finish rebuilding our house. I do not know how we faced the darkness of that night.”

Everyone we interviewed confirmed that force, coercion, and violence were used to confiscate people’s lands. When the developers came, they threatened the villagers, saying that they would destroy their houses and everything they owned if they did not move immediately. The developers provided no compensation for what the communities lost.

“We do not want the word development to equal land confiscation or land grabbing.”- Ah Hkawn

Changes are occurring very fast in some parts of Burma/Myanmar. Unresolved conflicts over land make it difficult to invest responsibly.

Classes being conducted outdoors. Image Credit: KWAT Research Team

In some areas, there is still ongoing fighting, with many internally displaced persons and refugees. People in conflict areas have fled and left their belongings and property, including their houses, lands, and farms. Meanwhile, land grabbing by the local authorities, military, and government continues. Thousands of citizens are losing their land and houses as a result of development projects. Ethnic minorities are being violently persecuted with no real peace process yet in place. The uprooting of so many people has caused large migrations to neighbouring countries, trafficking of girls and women, and drug addiction, among many other problems.

For responsible investment to take place, the barriers that prevent people from participating must be addressed. People want to be consulted, but it will take time and capacity building — for citizens, for government agencies, and for private developers. It is important that people are involved in every step of project design and implementation process. In fact, communities can give valuable advice to improve project design and outcomes.

When we spoke to the communities affected by the National Highway 3 reconstruction, they offered concrete ideas of what kind of development they would like. Ah Hkawn offered these thoughts on the community’s needs:

I grew up under a system of bad education and dictatorship. In our area, we have no hospital or even a traditional clinic. We have no access to health care. So in the future, I would like a good hospital. We need access to training for people to improve their knowledge.

Moon Nay Li speaks at a community meeting with displaced residents. Image Credit: KWAT Research Team.

Because of the long history of human rights abuses in Burma/Myanmar, it is important that donors and development finance institutions not only talk to government officials when planning the country’s development. We invite them to come and speak directly to our communities to understand our own aspirations. It will take time for the citizens of Burma/Myanmar to build trust in their government and the development process, and to feel free to speak up or even criticize those decisions with which they disagree, and offer alternative ideas. This needs to happen in order for our country to emerge from the darkness of the last few decades.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.